Time Tracking on an Agile Team

What’s the best way to handle time-tracking on an Agile team? Your gut reaction to this question might be to resist any type of time-tracking at all. After all, one of the principles of the Agile Manifesto is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”.  Forcing the developers on your team to track the amount of time that they devote to completing stories or tasks might seem like useless bureaucratic red tape: an impediment to getting real work done.

I completely understand this reaction. I’ve been required to use time-tracking software in the past to account for each hour of my workday. It made me feel like Fred Flintstone punching in at the quarry mine and not like a professional.

Punching In

Why You Really Do Need Time-Tracking

There are, however, legitimate reasons to track time spent on stories even when you are a member of an Agile team.  First, if you are working with an outside client, you might need to track the number of hours spent on different stories for the purposes of billing. There might be no way to avoid time-tracking if you want to get paid.

Second, the Product Owner needs to know when the work on a story has gone over the original time estimated for the story. The Product Owner is concerned with Return On Investment. If the team has gone massively overtime on a story, then the Product Owner has a legitimate reason to halt work on the story and reconsider the story’s business value.

Finally, you might want to track how much time your team spends on different types of stories or tasks. For example, if your team is spending 75% of their time doing testing then you might need to bring in more testers. Or, if 10% of your team’s time is expended performing a software build at the end of each iteration then it is time to consider better ways of automating the build process.

Time-Tracking in SonicAgile

For these reasons, we added time-tracking as a feature to SonicAgile which is our free Agile Project Management tool. We were heavily influenced by Jeff Sutherland (one of the founders of Scrum) in the way that we implemented time-tracking (see his article http://scrum.jeffsutherland.com/2007/03/time-tracking-is-anti-scrum-what-do-you.html).

In SonicAgile, time-tracking is disabled by default. If you want to use this feature then the project owner must enable time-tracking in Project Settings.

Enable Time Tracking

You can choose to estimate using either days or hours. If you are estimating at the level of stories then it makes more sense to choose days. Otherwise, if you are estimating at the level of tasks then it makes more sense to use hours.

After you enable time-tracking then you can assign three estimates to a story:

  • Original Estimate – This is the estimate that you enter when you first create a story. You don’t change this estimate.
  • Time Spent – This is the amount of time that you have already devoted to the story. You update the time spent on each story during your daily standup meeting.
  • Time Left – This is the amount of time remaining to complete the story. Again, you update the time left during your daily standup meeting.

So when you first create a story, you enter an original estimate that becomes the time left. During each daily standup meeting, you update the time spent and time left for each story on the Kanban.

Assign time estimate

If you had perfect predicative power, then the original estimate would always be the same as the sum of the time spent and the time left. For example, if you predict that a story will take 5 days to complete then on day 3, the story should have 3 days spent and 2 days left.

Unfortunately, never in the history of mankind has anyone accurately predicted the exact amount of time that it takes to complete a story. For this reason, SonicAgile does not update the time spent and time left automatically. Each day, during the daily standup, your team should update the time spent and time left for each story.

For example, the following table shows the history of the time estimates for a story that was originally estimated to take 3 days but, eventually, takes 5 days to complete:

Day Original Estimate Time Spent Time Left
Day 1 3 days 0 days 3 days
Day 2 3 days 1 day 2 days
Day 3 3 days 2 days 2 days
Day 4 3 days 3 days 2 days
Day 5 3 days 4 days 0 days

In the table above, everything goes as predicted until you reach day 3. On day 3, the team realizes that the work will require an additional two days. The situation does not improve on day 4. All of the sudden, on day 5, all of the remaining work gets done.

Real work often follows this pattern. There are long periods when nothing gets done punctuated by occasional and unpredictable bursts of progress. We designed SonicAgile to make it as easy as possible to track the time spent and time left on a story.

Detecting when a Story Goes Over the Original Estimate

Sometimes, stories take much longer than originally estimated. There’s a surprise. For example, you discover that a new software component is incompatible with existing software components. Or, you discover that you have to go through a month-long certification process to finish a story.

In those cases, the Product Owner has a legitimate reason to halt work on a story and re-evaluate the business value of the story. For example, the Product Owner discovers that a story will require weeks to implement instead of days, then the story might not be worth the expense.

SonicAgile displays a warning on both the Backlog and the Kanban when the time spent on a story goes over the original estimate. An icon of a clock is displayed.

Going overtime

Time-Tracking and Tasks

Another optional feature of SonicAgile is tasks. If you enable Tasks in Project Settings then you can break stories into one or more tasks.

You can perform time-tracking at the level of a story or at the level of a task. If you don’t break a story into tasks then you can enter the time left and time spent for the story. As soon as you break a story into tasks, then you can no longer enter the time left and time spent at the level of the story. Instead, the time left and time spent for a story is rolled up from its tasks.

On the Kanban, you can see how the time left and time spent for each task gets rolled up into each story. The progress bar for the story is rolled up from the progress bars for each task.


The original estimate is never rolled up – even when you break a story into tasks. A story’s original estimate is entered separately from the original estimates of each of the story’s tasks.


Not every Agile team can avoid time-tracking. You might be forced to track time to get paid, to detect when you are spending too much time on a particular story, or to track the amount of time that you are devoting to different types of tasks.

We designed time-tracking in SonicAgile to require the least amount of work to track the information that you need. Time-tracking is an optional feature. If you enable time-tracking then you can track the original estimate, time left, and time spent for each story and task.

You can use time-tracking with SonicAgile for free. Register at http://SonicAgile.com.


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